Pollster uses leading question to mischaracterize support for Bears Ears

Dan Jones gives a master class in how to not write poll questions

An “adventure in driving,” the Moki Dugway drops from the uplands of Cedar Mesa, with views of the famous Monument Valley in the distance | BLM

Not all poll questions are created equally and — unfortunately — sometimes pollsters tip the scales. That was certainly the case with a question posed by Dan Jones and Associates on behalf of the Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics in a recent poll about Bears Ears National Monument.

The question reads: The state of Utah has recommended shrinking the new Bears Ears National Monument from 1.3 million acres to 120,000 acres. Do you agree that Bears Ears is too big?

The question begins by leading respondents towards the conclusion that Bears Ears is large, citing that Utah’s elected officials want to see it diminished ten-fold. Then the question pivots away from whether respondents agree with the specific request from Utah officials, and instead asks vaguely, “Do you agree that Bears Ears is too big?”

It might seem minor at first glance, but there’s little doubt that the pollsters — knowingly or unknowingly — put their fingers on the scale. The question found that 51 percent agree that Bears Ears is too big and that 37 percent don’t.

At the end of the Moki Dugway, visitors can traverse the 17 mile unpaved loop through Valley of the Gods | BLM

In a different poll last month, the same polling firm asked a more balanced question: It appears that President Donald Trump is considering reducing the size of some national monuments. Do you favor or oppose reducing the size of the new Bears Ears National Monument?

Not surprisingly, the result was significantly different, with 49 percent of Utahns supporting reducing the size of Bear Ears and 46 percent opposing, within the poll’s margin of error. The nearly 10 point swing between the two polls — again, conducted by the same pollster, just one month apart — indicates that the wording of the question heavily influenced the responses.

The Bears Ears buttes themselves are visible throughout the national monument | Tim Peterson

Participants in the latest Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll were also asked about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But instead of guiding respondents toward one answer, the poll asked a straightforward question: Do you think Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should be broken up into several smaller monuments? Predictably, without the benefit of a leading question, the results were in favor of preserving Grand Staircase — 53 percent of respondents supported maintaining the monument as is, while only 27 percent supported breaking it up.

Prior polls on both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase have shown there is a solid plurality of support for the monuments. There is a notable gap between anti-conservation politicians and the majority of Utah voters, but only one of these poll questions captured that.

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